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Knowledge is Never Content as Content

Copyright LockedBernie Goldbach in Drogheda | Image from my Flickr photostream.

THERE ARE TIMES like these, on the heels of the suicide of Aaron Swartz, that cause me to think about the precious  status enjoyed by copyrighted content. Years from now, I believe we will recognise copyright as an imperialistic concept.

Nothing I write and nothing I share in a higher education classroom has any value unless it's read and remembered. My course notes, essays, sample questions and readings have to be opened, read, discussed and shared among classmates. Only then does creative content become knowledge. In a related essay, Jeff Jarvis cites "the pioneers of rethinking content’s value"—Lawrence Lessig, Joi Ito, Cory Doctorow, Aaron Swartz—to make the point that "all creation is born of what came before". The realm of intellectual property has changed.

Where I work, people enhance their status through core content they produce for students, through articles they write for mainstream publication and through books they publish for sale. Sometimes lecturers annotate every page of their course work with prominent copyright claims. And while the system enshrines their claims, society stands to benefit more from Creative Commons licensing of work produced in the service of State-funded academic institutions than from the inclusion of academic work in pricey journals.

Many of my colleagues think their productivity is measured by word count, slide decks or contributions to major chapters in textbooks. I don't think that way anymore. Instead, I think that the words I type right now have no value unless they are read and that they encourage specific action steps. I know these words won't be read unless they're shared. So I need people to pass along the stuff I write and most of the time that means I have to create a frictionless sharing environment.

Such a world view runs counter to the locked-down and copyright-protected copies in our academic collections.  Aaron Swartz’s encountered one of those collections in  JSTOR, an archive of journals that he compromised. And because Aaron's actions were deemed as illegal under US law, he was charged with multiple felony counts.

Some believe Aaron Swartz could not face decades in prison so he took his own life.

I think many more people will read and share the tragic story of Aaron Swartz and copyright now after Aaron's death than would have read about the issue if it was merely a court case. Readers may reflect upon Swartz being pursued for sharing copies while successful companies like Google and Facebook continue giving away access to vast stores of information. In our highly-connected knowledge economy, there is real value in the signals people make as they find and share information online, even though they may be incomprehensible to traditional publishers and the copyright police. We study these signals as part of a Web Analytics module where I teach university students how to read clickstreams, exit links, and relationships built on semantic concepts. These data tell us about relationships and help us develop consumer strategies involving premium content and real world events. Our creative multimedia degree teaches students how to make money from relationships and from sharing online. These are new business models and they are viable ones.

All around us, these new business models are emerging for news and entertainment. In Jeff Jarvis' mind, these new business models focus "on value delivered over value protected, on service over content. For content is merely that which fills something—a page or a minute—while service is that which accomplishes something for someone."

I agree with this view and I share many of the precepts Jarvis yammers about during episodes of This Week in Google. I've read the work of Lawrence LessigDavid Weinberger and Dave Winer. They have proven to me that there is little hope for the advance of our culture if our aspirations terminate between the hard covers of books confined to shelf.

And the passing of Aaron Swartz has underscored the active learning process I advocate, a process that empowers me to free content for further study and extensive sharing by the students I have been charged to educate. Those students know that knowledge is never content to be relegated to the lowly status of being merely content. Instead, my students learn the metaphor of knowledge likened to a candle. Even as it lights a new candle, the strength of the original flame is not diminished. 

RIP Aaron Swartz

NOTE: Aaron's last campaign involved a petition for the United States to mint a platinum coin.

Michael Martinez -- Internet prodigy, activist Aaron Swartz commits suicide on CNN, January 13, 2013.

Alex Stamos -- "The truth about Aaron Swartz's Crime" on Unhandled Exception, January 12, 2013. 

Jeff Jarvis -- Learning the true value of content on Google Plus, January 13, 2013.

Bernie Goldbach is the senior creative multimedia lecturer in the Limerick Institute of Technology where copyright features as a compelling piece of content.